In Orioles' lineup, Sosa just might be clean fit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't long ago that Sammy Sosa vented about the way Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker lowered him in the batting order, as if he had been slapped hard across the face. The animosity led to their parting.

Now a new team must decide where to bat the right fielder.

The Orioles gladly will accept that challenge.

Assuming that Sosa passes his physical examination tomorrow, the Orioles will determine where to fit him into a lineup that already includes last year's team Most Valuable Player, Miguel Tejada, likely Hall of Famer Rafael Palmeiro and catcher Javy Lopez, who hit 43 homers in 2003.

The Orioles' front office hasn't commented publicly on the trade, which would send Jerry Hairston to the Cubs. No formal announcement has been made, but early speculation has the Orioles batting him fourth behind Tejada, perhaps pushing Melvin Mora to second. Palmeiro could hit fifth ahead of Lopez.

No matter the arrangement, the Orioles gladly will make room for a player who ranks seventh on the all-time home run list with 574.

"Without talking it over with [manager] Lee Mazzilli or the general managers, I'm certain that he's going to hit dead in the middle somewhere," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "And for me, the middle is third, fourth, fifth or sixth."

Sosa wasn't that flexible last year. He got into a well-publicized dispute with Baker after being dropped to sixth in the order before a Sept. 11 game against the Florida Marlins. He hadn't batted that low since June 10, 1994.

"I'm not a sixth batter," he said at the time. "I'm a cleanup hitter or third because I've earned that right with almost 600 career home runs."

It's fairly certain that the Orioles will keep him higher in the order unless Sosa struggles again. He batted .253 last season with 35 homers, his lowest total since 1994.

"There are times during the course of the season that ... your lineup changes a little bit due to injuries, sore feet, sore hands, different things like that," Crowley said. "It's safe to say he's going to be dead in the middle somewhere."

The only certainty is that Brian Roberts will lead off, with Hairston no longer a challenger to second base or the top spot in the order. Mora put together one of the best offensive seasons in club history, batting .340 with 27 homers and 104 RBIs, but he could move up to second.

Mora batted third 80 times last season, mostly after David Newhan became established in the order.

Mazzilli could choose to bat Palmeiro fifth, giving him a left-handed bat behind Sosa, with Lopez sixth and Jay Gibbons seventh.

"When you get some seasoned veterans with track records against different pitchers, sometimes it gives the manager the luxury to flip-flop guys between lefties and righties," Crowley said.

"I know one thing: It's a nice problem. I can just think back three years ago. There were days where we had trouble fielding a solid lineup."

Perhaps Sosa could provide a solution to last season's vexing problem. The Orioles led the American League with a .293 average against right-handers, but were next to last with a .253 average against left-handers. They were 22-29 in games started by lefties.

Sosa is a career .294 hitter against left-handers, though he batted .253 against both last season. In a strange twist, he had only four homers and 12 RBIs in 95 at-bats against lefties, but Crowley tosses aside those numbers.

"I've had a chance to think about [the trade] a little bit more today, and I'm more excited about it, having slept on it one night, than I was yesterday," he said.

"It's a good feeling right now."

Sosa's best, worst

Top four

Sept. 13, 1998: Sosa hits home runs Nos. 61 and 62 in an 11-10 comeback victory against Milwaukee at Wrigley Field, passing Babe Ruth and Roger Maris on the all-time single-season list and tying Mark McGwire in baseball's greatest home run race. After his second shot, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey is blasted over the public-address system as Sosa rounds the bases.

Oct. 7 and 8, 2003 (Games 1 and 2 of NLCS): Sosa's most memorable clutch hit comes in the opener against Florida. His game-tying, two-run homer off Ugueth Urbina with two outs in the bottom of the ninth ties the game 8-8, only minutes after the Marlins score a pair in the ninth. However, the Cubs go on to a 9-8 loss in 11 innings. With the Cubs leading 3-0 in Game 2, Sosa hits a 495-foot homer that sails over the shrubbery and lands on top of the center-field camera shed.

Sept. 27, 2001: After an emotional pre-game ceremony at Wrigley Field honoring the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Sosa runs out to right field waving a small American flag as the crowd goes wild. After hitting a home run in the first inning, Sosa is handed a small flag by first base coach Billy Williams and waves it while he runs around the bases.

Sept. 18, 1999: Sosa becomes the first player in history with back-to-back 60-homer seasons with a shot off Milwaukee's Jason Bere into the center-field basket in Wrigley. He had gone seven games and 37 at-bats between home runs but beat McGwire to the 60 mark.

Bottom four

June 3, 2003: Shortly after returning from toenail surgery, a slumping Sosa takes a corked bat to the plate with him in the first inning. The bat splits into several pieces on a groundout, and Sosa is ejected for using a corked bat. Sosa says he mistakenly used a "batting practice" bat that he accidentally had left in the bat rack.

Oct. 3, 2004: Sosa walks out of Wrigley Field in the first inning of the Cubs' season finale against Atlanta, leaving manager Dusty Baker at a loss for explanations afterward. Sosa later criticizes Baker in a published interview for "blaming" him for the Cubs' collapse.

May 16, 2004: On the morning after hitting a 434-foot home run into a luxury suite at Petco Park, Sosa has the sneeze heard around the world. Two sharp sneezes in the clubhouse lead to back spasms that force him out of the lineup. The pain lingers, and a few days later, Baker says Sosa "looks like Fred Sanford walking around."

April 20, 2003: A fastball from Pittsburgh's Salomon Torres hits Sosa near the left earflap, cracking his helmet and sending him to a local hospital for X-rays that proved negative. Some believe this incident marked the beginning of the end of Sosa's days as a feared slugger, pushing him farther and farther off the plate.

- Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune

Orioles lineup : Projected Orioles Opening Day batting order (with last year's statistics)

2B Brian Robert

107 runs

50 doubles

29 steals

3B Melvin Mora

.340 BA

111 runs

104 RBIs

SS Miguel Tejada

107 runs

34 HRs

150 RBIs

RF Sammy Sosa

69 runs

35 HRs

80 RBIs

DH Rafael Palmeiro

29 doubles

23 HRs

88 RBIs

C Javy Lopez

.316 BA

23 Hrs

86 RBIs

1B Jay Gibbons

14 doubles

10 HRs

47 RBIs

LF Larry Bigbie

.280 BA

76 runs

15 HRs

CF Luis Matos

36 runs

18 doubles

12 steals

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